The NS Interview: Ayaan Hirsi Ali

“Islam is exempted from scrutiny – and spreading fast”

You grew up in Africa and then moved to the Netherlands. How did that affect you?
It was my first gateway to western life as it is lived, not the way I read in novels in Kenya.

You have written of your traumatic childhood. Is there anything that you owe your family?
I am grateful to my father for sending me to school, and that we moved from Somalia to Kenya, where I learned English. And that my mother has always been a very strong woman.

Your family still lives within Islam. How do they feel about your atheist life in America?
My brother thinks it is very, very bad that I left Islam. My half-sister wants to convert me back; I want to convert her to western values. My mum is terrified that when I die, and we all go to God, I will be burned.

Do you feel that you belong in America?
I'm finally at home. I feel welcome, I feel free.

Which thinkers have shaped your ideas?
Many: John Locke and John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Hayek, people like Karl Popper. Defenders of individualism.

You defend free speech, yet you're under guard because you criticise Islam publicly. How do you deal with this contradiction?
I'm willing to face the continuous stream of threats. It's not the same as my freedoms being taken away. If I'd gone with the man my father chose, I wouldn't be living the way I want to.

Did you intend to become known for your outspokenness on Islam?
I don't define myself by this subject, I just publish and debate other participants' involvement.

In your book Nomad, you talk about the west's superiority as an objective truth.
Freedom, women's rights, prosperity, stability - by all these indicators, the west is superior. That's not opinion, it's basic fact.

What do you want your work to achieve?
I'd like Muslims to look at their religion as a set of beliefs that they can appraise critically and pick and choose from.

Is there anything you like about Islam?
There are things I don't mind - people praying and fasting because it makes them feel good. But there are all these rules governing men and women. And the political dimension: jihad.

What ideology does appeal to you?
Liberal capitalism is not perfect, but compared to the other isms it's far superior.

Do you ever worry that your ideas contribute to mistrust or intolerance of Muslims?
I don't think so. What I do is not create division, but expose the reasoning and the activity, and how persistently it violates human rights.

When you talk about a clash of civilisations, are you trying to be provocative?
To provoke debate, yes. Islam is spreading very fast. Westerners exempt Islam from scrutiny.

You are sympathetic towards Christianity, but doesn't it also have its unpleasant extremes?
Christianity has gone through a process of reformation. Islam has not.

Isn't that an idealised view, given the recent abuse scandals and so on?
If I idealised it, I would be a Christian. Are all religions equally bad? Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins say so. I beg to differ. It doesn't blind me to Christianity's imperfections.

You say western feminists are soft on Islam. Can't Muslim women fight their own battles?
Some Muslim women will say, "You're patronising," but the ones who are locked up, who are forced to wear the burqa, they will be grateful.

Do you support Europe's moves to ban the veil?
No. I'm against the veil because of the idea that a woman is responsible not only for her sexuality but also for that of men.

How do you view the recent events around the aid flotilla sent to Gaza?
Turkey provoked Israel. It is moving away from the west and slowly Islamising.

What are your hopes for Britain's government?
I really hope it will be strong on national security and push back the Islamisation of the UK.

Is there anything you regret?
I regret that Theo van Gogh was killed.

Do you vote?
I just voted in Holland, for the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy [VVD]. Their philosophy is comparable to David Cameron's.

Do you have a plan?
When I took the train from Germany in 1992, I didn't know where my life would lead me, but I'm really glad that I did it.

Are we all doomed?
No. Things can always be improved - and it's worth trying.

Defining Moments

1969 Born in Mogadishu, Somalia
1976 Settles with family in Kenya, having lived in Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia
1992 Political asylum in the Netherlands
2000 MA in politics, Leiden University
2002 First book, The Son Factory, published
2003 Enters Dutch House of Representatives
2004 Receives death threats after broadcast of Submission, her film with Theo van Gogh
2007 Becomes a permanent US resident
2010 Nomad is published

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 05 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of the generals

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The living lights that guide us home

A reflection on the summer magic of glow-worms.

There’s a species of summer magic I chase every year. It’s small, fierce and insistently beautiful and your best chance of seeing it is on hot nights in June and July. Tonight I’m searching for it in a disused chalk quarry on the outskirts of Cambridge, an eerie, lunar landscape of towering white cliffs and patches of bare ground resembling snowfields strewn with bones.

This is a nature reserve – one of only three UK sites where moon carrots grow – and it is brimming with life. Green longhorn moths the colour of stained gold velvet decorate pale scabious flowers; rabbits graze in drifts of trefoil, kidney vetch and thyme. The evening air is full of huge beetles with handlebar antennae, hooked feet and wildly erratic flight: cockchafers. I feel small, insistent tugs as they get entangled in my hair and impatiently comb them free with my fingers. I’ve not come here for them. I’m waiting for something else and it’s nearly time.

With a little thrill of anticipation I see that the light is fading fast. By 10.30pm, the last snowy glow has faded from the cliffs, replaced by thin starlight and a soft, mothy blackness. And then the magic begins. Twenty feet away, a point of intense light winks into existence. Over there, another. And another: tiny motes of cold fire mapping a sparse star field over the ground. I walk up to one, kneel and peer carefully at the other-worldly brilliance. It comes from the tail end of a small, elongated, wingless beetle, clutching hold of a stem of grass and waving its abdomen in the air. It and the lights around me are glow-worms, Lampyris noctiluca, things both sublime and ridi­culous: half intimations of remote stellar distance and half waggling beetle bums.

Only female glow-worms shine like this. They can’t eat, drink or fly but spend their days burrowed deep in stems and under debris, emerging after twilight, when the light drops to around 0.1 lux, to clamber up plant stems and glow to attract the smaller, winged males. Once mated, the females extinguish their light, lay between 50 and 150 small, spherical, faintly luminous eggs and die. Their adult lives are short and made of light – but in their two years as larvae, they are creatures of macabre darkness, using their jaws to inject snails with paralysing, dissolving neurotoxins before sucking them up like soup.

As I kneel by the glow-worm, transfixed by its light, this encounter in the summer night feels more like the workings of magic than chemistry, though I know that the light is the result of a reaction when the enzyme luciferase acts upon a compound called luci­ferin in the presence of oxygen, adenosine triphosphate and magnesium. The precise mechanism of their cold luminescence long puzzled natural philosophers. In the 17th century, Robert Boyle found that the glow was extinguished if they were kept in a vacuum – although, noticing that when kept in crystal glasses between experiments they continued to glow, he mused that their light was akin to “certain truths” that shine freely “in spight of prisons”. In the early 19th century John Murray conducted laborious experiments on Shropshire glow-worms, placing their luminous parts in water heated to various temperatures, or in acid, naphtha, oil or spirits. One specimen glowed for several nights when suspended in olive oil. “Viewed at a distance of about ten feet, it twinkled like a fixed star,” he recounted, while “the eye steadily and tranquilly observed the beautiful phenomenon”.

It is hard to write about glow-worms without recourse to metaphors of stars and lamps. Their beguiling effect on the obser­ving eye and their singular light populate myriad works of literature; these are the creatures of an “ineffectual fire” in Hamlet and the “living lamps” in Marvell’s “The Mower to the Glow-worms”, courteous beasts that guide wanderers home to safety.

Glow-worms prefer chalky, limestone habitats and you can find them on old railway lines and embankments, in cemeteries, hedgerows and gardens. But no one knows how many there are in Britain. They often go unnoticed because their light is easily obscured by headlights and torches. Certainly they are threatened by habitat degradation and urban development – males are attracted to streetlights and brightly lit windows – and this colony survives partly because the sodium glow of the surrounding town is blocked by quarry walls. Because the females do not fly, colonies are often venerable in age and easily rendered extinct: it is hard for them to move. But where they are known, local colonies are often passionately guarded and night-time glow-worm tours have become a summer tradition in many parts of the country, local experts guiding visitors around the natural light show, often with drinks and snacks laid on.

We live in a world of distracting, glowing screens but even so, these shining, tiny beacons retain an allure that draws people out in droves to stand and wonder. It is hard in these days of ecological ruination to find ways to reconnect people to a natural world more commonly encountered on television and video than in living reality. The greatest magic of these creatures is that their light cannot be captured meaningfully on film. Glow-worms are part of our hidden countryside. Like Marvell’s living lamps, they are still able to guide us distracted wanderers, giving us a keen sense of place and showing us a way to think of the nature around us as home.

Helen Macdonald is the author of  “H Is for Hawk” (Vintage)

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double